DENVER — Representatives of 23 Native American tribes gathered here Tuesday for a summit with the Western governors to discuss Indian gaming and potential changes to the federal law that oversees the industry.
With Congress pondering increased oversight, tribal leaders were eager to point out the benefits of gambling -- not just to their own people, but also to surrounding communities.
"In New York, we have created 5,000 jobs for Indians and non-Indians," said Keller George, president of the United Southern and Eastern Tribes. "In Florida, they have created 15,000 jobs in and around Miami. Indian gaming has helped everybody."
The two-day summit, sponsored by the Western Governors Assn., is designed to look at the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed tribes to open casinos.
At a news conference, Republican Govs. Bill Owens of Colorado and Michael Rounds of South Dakota expressed concerns about casino expansion, decrying the practice of tribes putting land in trust so they could use it for off-reservation gambling.
Owens is battling the Cheyenne-Arapahoe tribe of Oklahoma, which has laid claim to nearly 30 million acres of Colorado. The tribe has said it will relinquish the land in exchange for the right to build a casino east of Denver.
Not everything flowing from Indian gaming is good, Owens said, including low-wage jobs and compulsive gambling.
"While the growth of Indian gaming clearly has benefits for the tribes, it also raises questions for states," said Owens, chairman of the governors association. "We will listen carefully and look for areas of agreement. I think this is the first time we have had a discussion like this between states and tribes."
But Owens warned against back-door attempts by Congress to attach riders to bills that gave tribes permission for gaming without state consent.
"No one wants to see the federal government locate casinos on our land without the approval of the citizens," he said.
Congress recently has taken up the issue of Indian gambling.
In hearings this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, called tribal gambling an $18-billion business with too little scrutiny, and said it was ripe for scandal.
On Tuesday, the National Indian Gaming Assn. released its analysis of the effect of Indian gambling.
According to the study, $18.5 billion had been generated by gaming, along with 553,000 jobs. The analysis said 20% of Indian gaming revenue was used for education, child care and cultural preservation; 19% for economic development; 17% for healthcare; and 11% for housing. The rest was divided among police and infrastructure needs.
Tribes with gambling had lower poverty rates -- 24.7% compared with 33% for those without gaming -- the report said. Still, Indians face serious challenges, including infant mortality rates that are 22% higher than the rest of the nation, alcoholism rates 627% higher and suicide rates 72% greater than the national average.
Such figures have led reservations in places such as New Mexico to manage their casinos without assistance from outside management companies, which often take 30% to 40% of the gambling profits.
"In New Mexico, none of us are managed by a third party," said Stuart Paisano, governor of Sandia Pueblo, a reservation near Albuquerque that has the highest-grossing casino in the state.
"We do not hand out checks to tribal members. We return revenues back as services," he said.
I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier College and an expert on gambling law, said he didn't see much chance of Congress altering the Indian gaming act.
"There is enormous pressure right now to legalize gambling in the United States," Rose told about 200 Indians, officials and businessmen at the summit.
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Consumers spent $16.7 billion on Indian gaming in 2003, about one-quarter of the $73 billion spent on legal gambling in the United States:
Indian gaming: 23%
State lotteries: 27.4%
Commercial gambling: 39.4%
Other* : 10.2%
* Parimutuel wagering and charitable gaming
Source: National Indian Gaming Assn.